Opinion: What happened to America’s pastime?

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Photo by Jose Morales on Unsplash

The United States is the hegemon of professional sports. It could be the national powerhouse that is the NFL, the international impact of the NBA or the dynasty that is the U.S. women’s soccer team. The United States, for almost the last 100 years, has been the epitome of excellence in organized athletics. 

Baseball was once considered our national pastime, the embodiment of Americana in sports. Players like Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio used to dominate both athletics and pop culture – now most Americans don’t even know who the American League MVP was last year. The decline in America’s pastime has been constant and troublesome. 

Baseball is a slow sport. It does not have the intense bursts of activities like football or the constant playing like basketball. The sport is, by design, structured to move at a slower pace. The average baseball game lasts about 2 hours and 50 minutes, but games commonly go up to 3 or even 4 hours. That is a long time (about the time to fly from Kansas City to Los Angeles), and many people do not want to sit through it. Then you add in a 162 game season, and you create a perfect storm for a dwindling fanbase.  Young people do not want to and do not have the time to watch games. 

The NFL and NBA have brilliantly marketed to younger generations and created a stable fanbase that will still be fans in 30 years. Baseball has failed to build on their star power. LeBron James and Tom Brady’s national recognition is enormous, and their respective leagues have promoted this for their well-being. The MLB has the players that can live up to that standard but do not even come close to the publicity needed to build a true brand like other major sports leagues. 

The failure to market their star power creates a lack of enthusiasm in youth sports for baseball. Youth sports have the power to make its players become lifelong fans of the game. Baseball has relied on its title of being America’s pastime for so long that it grew complacent. Through its complacency, baseball has lost the title they coveted for so long.

Baseball is by no means a fringe sport in our country – in fact, it’s still very profitable. In 2012 it brought in almost $7.5 billion in revenue. The problem that baseball faces is that the MLB is not geared for long term success. Baseball does not have a salary cap that limits the cash flow that teams can put into the market. The reason why the top free agents always seem to sign with the same core group of teams is, simply, that money talks.

The divide between the haves and have-nots in professional baseball is incredible. In 2021, the New York Yankees had a little bit over $175 million to spend on their 26-man roster, while the Baltimore Orioles had a little bit over $50 million for theirs. The Yankees could hypothetically buy the Orioles team three times and still have some change. This is part of why baseball can not retain a steady fanbase. 

Let’s run through a hypothetical scenario to show the existential problem for baseball. Team X was able to draft the top prospect in the draft this year. He has all the traits to be a star and a generational player, and he makes it to the league before his rookie contract is up. He has a breakout year and becomes an all-star and is a rising star in the league. Unfortunately, his contract is up, and Team X can only offer him $7 million a year. The competing offer from Team Y is for $21 million, and just like that, Team X lost the future of their franchise, and they have to start over. For over half of all MLB teams, this is their yearly reality.

Why would someone continue to watch and root for a team if they have a different starting nine every year? That in itself is the problem of not having a salary cap like the NBA or the NFL. It only allows for a few organizations to build (or buy) lasting success. Without lasting success, fans don’t come to games – and fan turnout is the lifeblood of all sports. With the average amount of attendance being 28,203 in 2019 (down by 4,000 from 2008), a trend is starting to be seen. Unless you are a big name franchise or are from a big market town, people are not willing to spend money to watch a losing team. That sentiment is not what baseball has or should stand for.

Baseball’s legacy will forever be ingrained into American culture. Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947, President George W. Bush’s 1st pitch after 9/11 and the Cubs 108-year championship drought are all examples of when baseball has seized every American’s attention. Baseball, unlike any other pro sport, can do this. You don’t need to be 6’8″ with a 40 inch vertical or weigh 250lbs and run a 4.3 second 40 yard dash to succeed. Baseball is the living representation of the American Dream.

That’s why every able-bodied 10 year-old in this country can play baseball and be half-decent at it. No one has a genetic advantage of being tall or fast. Everyone starts at the same playing field – it just takes practice and a love for the game. That’s not the case for football, basketball or any other major sport in this country. Not long ago, this was seen as the truth in every household in the U.S.

Professional baseball has strayed from the roots that made it America’s game. They have failed to adjust the game to the modern youth and our generation. The sport’s failure was not through any rule changes, but instead, failing to market as well as the NFL or NBA and creating a fair playing field for every team. Baseball is at a true tipping point, and for the longevity of the sport, it must react and adjust its course.

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